The 2018 Silver SPUR Awards Luncheon was held in a big room. A comically big room. The walk down the hall to the restrooms must have been 150 yards; it felt like a gag lifted from a Noël Coward farce set in an oversize baronial manor.
Not only was the room at Moscone Center West big, it was full of big shots — 1,600 of them. San Francisco’s elected officials and high-level bureaucrats and captains of industry and developers and all the lobbyists and expediters who grease the gears of the city’s machinery were on hand.
They took in a hell of a show.
For the record, the honorees today were The Rev. Harry Chuck, Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins, Anita Friedman and Greg Moore (the latter is the president and CEO of the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, which explains why pale-green-uniformed park rangers dotted the crowd of blazers-and-no-ties and fancy dresses).
That was the event … but it wasn’t the event. The drama today was in the undercard: Mayor London Breed and Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff giving back-to-back speeches beforehand. The two have found themselves on opposite sides of the political battle over Prop. C, which would tax the city’s highest-grossing businesses at up to 0.5 percent after their first $50 million in the can, and could bring in $300 million a year for homeless and housing services.
Breed is against it. Benioff is for it — and has, all but single-handedly, funded the Yes on C effort and been its most visible backer.
San Francisco is a town that’s lousy with symbolism these days. This is the costliest town in America, serving as bedroom and playground for some of the nation’s wealthiest CEOs and their workforces — and yet human misery is all too apparent on every street corner. The city’s elite, in their finery, hop-scotched over human effluvia and over sleeping men and women to attend today’s grilled chicken-with-pita bread-and-dolmas-and-tabouleh-and-hummus-in-a-red-cabbage-bowl event.
Once there, they saw the city’s mayor and its No. 1 private employer on different sides of San Francisco’s most fraught and pressing issue, speaking from different stages, facing one another, across the vast expanse of a teeming ballroom packed with the city’s elites.
Well that’s a bit on the nose.
Breed was first up, speaking from the South stage. Unlike so many of her predecessors occupying City Hall Room 200, she was punctual. The mayor, who is a gifted public speaker, was focused, austere in her words, and brief. Throughout her short but loaded speech about homelessness, she did not mention Prop. C once; she was, essentially subtweeting Benioff and his table full of allies seated on the far end of the room.
She opened by noting her efforts to take on San Francisco’s most pressing situation, highlighting the legislation easing conservatorship of mentally ill drug addicts to be introduced to the Board of Supervisors today. She noted that “everyone in this room” would, surely, tackle the city’s homeless problem. But, she said slowly, “It takes more than just money.” She recounted the tale of a homeless couple she shepherded into a Navigation Center, only for them to bounce within a day. She brought up the pain of seeing her childhood neighbors stumbling through the Tenderloin. “I have seen the failure of false promises,” she said.
This city, she continued, has doubled its homeless budget over the past decade. But, in the same time period, the homeless biannually counted on our streets have risen. In our 2007 point-in-time count, 6,377 homeless people were tallied. In 2017, that number was 6,986.
“We can’t keep doing the same thing over and over and expect a new result,” she said, continuing to unsubtly drop No on C talking points.
If you wanted to cherry-pick the data to make San Francisco’s efforts look as piss-poor as possible, this is what you would do. That should have been a bit surprising and, writ large, perhaps it is. But this has become a pattern of late.
The mayor could’ve noted that other West Coast cities have experienced double-digit explosions in their homeless counts or she could’ve cited the thousands and thousands of people who’ve been permanently housed. But she didn’t. Once again, Mayor Breed, opposing a tax on our city’s highest-grossing businesses to double the homeless service budget, has gone out of her way to emphasize this city’s ineptitude.
The mayor’s short speech was politely received, and then everyone craned their necks over to the North side of the room, where Benioff was standing, perhaps 50 yards away. Unlike Breed, who was business-like, the business titan was loose and genial; he oozed that “Drink up! It’s paid for!” vibe of a father of the bride. Unlike the mayor, he also went long with his speech. Way, way long.
And why not? It is paid for. He paid for it. There was a table full of Yes on C swag in the lobby and plenty of literature; as of Oct. 30, Benioff has dropped $2 million into the Yes on C fight, and Salesforce has disgorged almost $6 million more.
“I’m soooo happy to be here. And I’m soooo happy this isn’t Dreamforce,” he said to scattered laughter. Benioff went out of his way to laud the day’s honorees and also Breed for her “leadership and dedication.”
Benioff came to bury Caesar and praise her.
He also came to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. He asked if the gathered swells had noticed homeless people “outside this very building. Did you see them today? I did.”
“Look into their eyes,” he continued. “They are suffering. Right here in this city. They are not strangers. They are our neighbors.”
Not only are our neighbors suffering, Benioff said, so is this city’s reputation. “National publications are running headlines and photos of our garbage-strewn streets,” he said. “I get e-mails. From the 170,000 people who were just here for Dreamforce. They can’t believe they have to step over human feces. Here in San Francisco! Is this the image we want to project to the world? I ask each of you.”
He decried this city’s “crisis of inequality,” with “many of the nation’s most successful corporations, like mine, headquartered not far from this building.” The hundreds of billions of dollars of wealth generated by these companies “are kept inside their buildings. It does not trickle down.” San Francisco is a city of “glittering wealth alongside shocking poverty.”
The street scenes we have grown inured to “oughta break our hearts.” The burden of alleviating this city’s misery, he said, was not Mayor Breed’s alone. “The business of business cannot just be business.” Ascendant, wealthy companies, he said, must “give back, not just in terms of well-intentioned philanthropy but in scale — in scale of the wealth they created on the back of this city.”
Human misery and overt drug-use, Benioff said, have become the symbols of this city, supplanting our crooked streets and orange bridges. “When,” he asked “are we going to say enough is enough? And that’s why I’m supporting Proposition C.”
The mention, by name, of the ballot measure, after a good half an hour of unsubtle subtlety from Breed and Benioff, hit like a jolt. Benioff had named the Ballot Measure That Must Not Be Named.
So he did it again. Loudly. And cornily, saying the “C” stood for “Charitable.”
Benioff, by this time, had blown away any semblance of a schedule; he went long on an Academy Awards-like scale and there was nobody to play him off.
He bemoaned his fellow billionaires who couldn’t see fit to pony up “immaterial” amounts of money to quell this city’s existential problems. He mentioned, by name, the multigenerational, family-owned San Francisco businesses of the past — Wells Fargo, Levi Strauss, The Gap — whose leaders reached into their pockets to help out their city. He mentioned, by name, the homeless service providers Prop. C opponents have intimated are failing this city — Hamilton Families, Larkin Street Youth, Glide, and others.
“We can be a great city again,” Benioff promised. And he got a hell of a round of applause when all was said and done. He sat back down at his table; two seats down, Coalition on Homelessness Executive Director Jenny Friedenbach got up, beaming, and planted a kiss on his cheek.
After that speech, and before the honorees were even honored, a portion of the crowd decamped for whatever came next. They wandered past the cavernous antechambers where black-tied servers piled up mounds of half-eaten tabouleh and cabbage, descended several sets of king-sized escalators, and wandered into a perfect San Francisco afternoon.
The well-dressed wandered past the ragged, the desperate, the miserable. As one does.
It oughta break our hearts.